Early one friday in mid-March I headed east on I-40 past Greensboro to Sedalia, NC. population 622. I was on my way to the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum at the Palmer Memorial Institute- the only State Historic Site in North Carolina dedicated to African-American History or to a woman. Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I. But it turned out to be the most inspiring historic site I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to a lot of historic sites.
In 1902 18 year-old Charlotte Hawkins literally jumped off the train (because it didn’t stop in or near Sedalia, especially for a young black girl), to educate children in the rural south, where there were barely schools for white children, and just forty years before educating blacks had been illegal. In 1841 the punishment for educating a person under slavery was 39 lashes for the slave and a $250 fine for the teacher.
Hawkins had been born in Henderson, NC, but her family moved north to Boston and Charlotte (born Lottie, but renaming herself in high school a name she felt more sophisticated) was educated there, and from a young age she was very driven. One afternoon while babysitting Charlotte was reading the Virgil in Latin while her charges played in the park. She was noticed by Alice Freeman Palmer, who had been the President of Wellesley College from 1881-1887, a private women’s college near Boston. Impressed with the young girl’s choice reading of such complicated poetry the two women became acquainted, and Palmer became Hawkins mentor and benefactor, paying all of her expenses to attend the Salem State Normal School to get her teaching degree. While attending the school Hawkins received the opportunity from the American Missionary Association to teach rural African-American children in the south and she felt it was her calling to provide an education such as she had received in the north. She left school and chose to go to North Carolina, where she was born.
“In a little white church, which was schoolroom and church combined,” says she, “my life’s work began. The plastering was broken, and half of the windowpanes were out. With these crudities and its homemade log seats it seemed to me a forlorn, forsaken place; and yet those fifty or sixty boys and girls, barefooted and unkempt, heartened me with their bright questioning eyes, and in a little while I forgot the isolation and hardships and lost my very soul in trying to help them.”
After Hawkins had only been in Sedalia a year the American Missionary Association closed all of its 1 and 2 room schools, leaving her without funding, but with a community of children and adults desperate for education. She felt it was her calling to stay, so she spent the summer in New England, searching for wealthy patrons to fund her new school. Canvassing on foot from a list given to her from Alice Freeman Palmer she raised just enough money to renovate an old blacksmith building into a ‘school’ – with the girls (it was mostly girls because the boys were needed to work in the fields for their families) sleeping upstairs in a loft, the teachers sleeping downstairs, a large room used for the classes, and the teachers and students subsisting on two meals a day, mostly cornbread, molasses, peas and beans.
Alice Freeman Palmer died Dec 6, 1902, at the age of 47. In tribute to her friend and mentor Hawkins named the school the Palmer Memorial Institute.
Still desperate for funds to continue and grow the Institute in 1904 two teachers began a letter writing campaign, hand writing dozens of letters every night to names on a list of possible benefactors. They wrote over a thousand letters and raised $500, enough to build the school’s first building.
Within years Brown developed a unique private college prepatory school, offering young men and women a fine education with the early focus on trade and agriculture for men, and the domestic sciences for women. The land owned by the grew to 400 acres, thanks in part by a large gift of land from Helen Kimball who the dining hall is named after. The farmland helped sustain the school, students growing corn and sweet potatoes and learning the model of sustainable agriculture while passing the knowledge onto the community. In 1922 the Palmer Memorial Institute became accredited for grades 7-12. As the Institute grew in prestige Brown integrated liberal arts: music, theatre, art and literature, as an important part of the curriculum. The school brought students from the North and the South, and even as far away as West Africa. The school’s singing group, the Sedalia singers, were in demand, selling out auditoriums and raising funds to continue growing the school. They traveled up and down the East Coast playing in such prestigious venues as Symphony Hall, Boston, Town Hall New York, and the White House for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Hawkins also got together the means to establish a public elementary school nearby for young black students which opened in 1937.
Touring the 40 acre of preserved campus today it is obvious the dedication and energy Hawkins put into this Institute. Many of the buildings are still standing, including large dormitories for girls and boys (on opposite sides of the campus), the dining hall, science building, and athletic fields. A lot of the progress came in the 1920s when the brick buildings were built to replace the older wooden ones.
The Visitor’s Center is housed in the Carrie M. Stone Teacher’s Cottage, built in 1948 for unmarried female teachers. Inside of the Visitor’s Center there is a short video to acquaint you with the grounds, a gift shop featuring PMI merchandise and books by and about Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and a display with large boards and pictures that is very well done and takes up the living room and the hallway. There is also an article framed in the back hallways from the October 1947 issue of Ebony Magazine featuring an article on Hawkins and the Palmer Memorial Institute.
The Carrie M Stone Teacher’s Cottage is a twin to the Massachusetts cottage on the East side of Campus which housed a rotating occupants of senior girls who would learn to manage a household during their 6-week tenancy in the cottage. Today you can rent the Massachusetts cottage, and while we were touring there was projects of a group teaching etiquette, and it seemed fitting in that atmosphere to see the place setting on the table laying out which utensils to use, and rows of chairs facing each other in the empty parlor, each with one single rose on them, as though some kind of posture or dance was being taught, and it was as if Mrs. Hawkins Brown herself was still overseeing things.
The boys dormitory Eliot Hall, named after Harvard’s 22nd president. It replaced the previous boy’s dormitory, Reynolds, which still stands and was used for a number of years to house artifacts for the State. Eliot Hall was never fully completed due to a lack of funding, as you can see from the picture below the left hand site of the Colonial Revival-Stylebuilding. All of the buildings at the Palmer Institute aside from the bungalow style cottages are reflective of that Colonial or Georgian Revival Style, which may remind some visitors of the nearby Wake Forest campus, although the Palmer Institute predates the current Wake Forest University campus, which was built in the 1950s.
There is also a small science building that was constructed in the 1970s on the campus, and a small wooden “teahouse” which served as the bookstore and school store, and was run by the male students as a way to learn business.
The girls dormitory, Galen Stone Hall, was also named for a large donor. Kimball Hall, which served as the cafeteria, was named for Helen Kimball of Brookline, Massachusetts, who bought a $3,000 farm for the school, a third of which was a direct gift, the remaining portion offered for sale to patrons of the institution for building sites, in which nine families bought ground for homes on this land and used it for farming as well.
The President’s house was built in 1927, and had electricity and indoor plumbing, including claw foot tubs and ice boxes in the kitchen. These modern conveniences wouldn’t reach that part of rural North Carolina until decades later, but Charlotte Hawkins Brown had them built into her house, the Canary Cottage, painted yellow after the bird. She also had the only telephone in town, and a radio. Hawkins was married twice, but had no children of her own. Three of her nieces stayed with her at Canary Cottage, one of them. Maria, was the daughter of Brown’s brother Mingo. Her mother died in childbirth when Maria was two, and she was sent to live with her aunt. She graduated from Palmer Memorial Institute in 1938, and had a career as a jazz singer. After her first husband, a Tuskegee Airman, died during a flight, and a second marriage ended in divorce, she married Nat King Cole, and they raised five children, one of them singer Natalie Cole. Maria became a champion of saving the Institute after it closed in 1971 and was key to it later becoming a State Historic Site.
One thing missing from campus today is the main academic building. The Alice Freeman Palmer Building was completed in 1922 and was the center of campus. Students spent their days, from 8:30am Chapel to 4:00pm when classes ended, in the Palmer building, which included the auditorium, library, and music room. On February 15, 1971 the building was destroyed by a fire, leaving just a footprint and a ruin of column of what was once an impressive four-story brick structure.
Jamie Jones is the Site Manager for the Charlotte Hawkins Brown State Historic Site and I don’t think there could be anyone better for the job. Her enthusiasm and love for the site was palpable. She led our group, which included me and a group of four from a local community college, on a almost three hour tour of the site. Jones is fully aware of her enthusiasm and was conscientious enough to ensure our schedules were clear for an in-depth tour. Not a minute of the tour was superfluous.
At the site gift shop I picked up a copy of The Correct Thing To Do To Say To Wear written by Charlotte Hawkins Brown in 1941 and reprinted in 2003, and also Charlotte Hawkins Brown: One Woman’s Dream by Diane Silcox-Jarrett, which is a brief and very well-written narrative of Brown’s life. I was so moved by Wilcox-Jarrett’s books, as I was inspired by the historic site, that I emailed the author, and she was kind enough to reply to my email, and said what I felt as the site and reading the book as well –
“Charlotte was truly inspiring to write about and I learned so much from her. I wish I could be more like her. I try.”
I too hope that the memory of Charlotte and what I learned at the site will never leave me, but continue to inspire me to do more, to be better, and to help others aspire to the same.
Closed Sundays, Mondays, and most major state holidays.